The chaos continues in Egypt. The army has been called in to keep the peace after the regular police (and, apparently, many of the special police) were driven off the streets, their precinct buildings burnt down. Prisoners are reported to have escaped from Demu Prison in Fayoum and are terrorizing the neighborhood (scroll down at the link). Pres. Mubarak has sacked his rubber-stamp cabinet and named Omar Suleiman as his new Vice President. The Internet was shut down and remains down; cell phones had but cut off but now appear to be back in service.
King Abdullah made a formal statement, supporting Mubarak and condemning violence. I think he’s right about the violence. About Mubarak, though, no.
Saudi Arabia—and Saudis in general—have a religiously-based belief that rulers are to be both respected and obeyed. That is not a bad method to keep civil peace. It has its limits though. Leaders are respected only so long as they hold the respect of the people they govern. When people feel themselves abused by their leaders, they demand change, often of those leaders. Leaders can go quietly, as did Tunisia’s Bin Ali, or they can go violently. Unjust leaders deserve neither respect nor obedience, as Mubarak is discovering.
Mubarak, though he may believe differently, is not the Government of the Republic of Egypt. He is its elected leader and that alone. If he no longer holds the confidence of his citizens that he can rule justly, then he needs to go. I suspect there’s a guest palace available in Jeddah if he decides to take a short flight east.
The newly named Vice President, Omar Suleiman, seems a mixed bag. He has extensive experience in Egypt’s foreign affairs and is the point man on Arab-Israeli matters. He comes from the military, so that’s a plus-point when it comes to keeping the Army onside. He is also reputed to have been deeply engaged in keeping domestic opponents to the regime in line, however. According to WikiLeaked cables, Suleiman has not drifted far from Mubarak’s ideas of governance, so this may be simply a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. How the Egyptian street—and here, the ‘Arab Street’ does count for a lot—sees him will decide whether there’s an easy solution that keep Mubarak at his desk. I don’t think it’s going to work.
US-Egyptian relations are important to both countries. Since the time of Sadat, the US has seen Egypt as a power in the Middle East that can, and often does, play a role in maintaining peace. As Henry Kissinger once said, ‘Without Egypt, there is no war.’ To encourage cooperation, the US has been providing Egypt with $1.3 billion in aid annually, since the 1970s. How well Egypt has used that aid is a fair question. The answer, I think, is ‘not at all well’. For a while, Mubarak was a good ruler, easing government controls on business, opening the country to tourists (and their dollars) even from Israel. His government, again for a while, eased constraints on Islamist political parties, but then started reining them in with an iron fist.
The big question, of course, is ‘After Mubarak, what?’
I’m sure Mubarak feels, as did Louis XV, Après moi, le déluge. It’s possible that he’s right. I am not at all confident that were Mubarak to fall his replacement would be liberal, far-sighted, or even very democratic at all. There is some truth in the saying about familiar devils being preferable to new, but strange ones.
Meanwhile, there’s turmoil in Yemen and Jordan, with people taking to the streets to denounce government failings and calling for change. On the streets of Jeddah, a group gathered today to protest the failing of the municipality and the national government to establish sufficient infrastructure to abate floods. On the videotape I saw, it appeared to be about a hundred people or so protesting. It’s not comparable to what’s going on in Egypt, nor is it likely, I think, to act as a fuse toward any kind of explosion. I’m seeing quite a bit of talk about it doing that, but so far that chatter seems to be coming from stock market ‘advisors’ who see easy money being made as the price of oil rockets on fears of just such a thing. It’s all to their financial benefit to promote such rumors, but it doesn’t make it true.
Saudi Arabia is in dire need of its own reforms. There’s no doubt about that. High unemployment, low salaries, ill-educated youths with degrees that do nothing to put them into jobs, half the potential workforce—the female half—is arbitrarily excluded from most work, poor infrastructure… the list goes on. To date, though, those problems have not reached a critical level. They can and, unless changes come more rapidly, they likely will. But not today and not tomorrow.